FAB 4. Bucs Could Get A Steal With Shepherd
With just two interior defensive linemen on the current roster – Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and unproven Stevie Tu’ikolovatu – defensive tackle has become a huge area of need for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The hope here is that veteran Clinton McDonald gets re-signed to provide depth at both the nose tackle and three-technique positions as well as leadership due to the fact that the Bucs will likely spend a draft pick on a defensive tackle.
While Tampa Bay has an interest in Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, who could be the team’s first-round pick, there are other players the team likes, including Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle, who could be a late first- or early second-round pick. One player the Bucs need to like is Fort Hays State defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd.
At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, Shepherd has grown man size and grown man strength. At the Senior Bowl, the small school wonder showed he had grown man moves, too, before breaking his hand during the second practice.
Heading into the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, Shepherd is viewed as a Day 3 pick, likely carrying a fourth- or fifth-round grade. If Shepherd impresses athletically in Indianapolis, he could move into Day 2 consideration because he was the most dominant defensive lineman in Mobile, Ala. before leaving the Senior Bowl with his hand injury.
— Kevin Brown (@nfldraftnik) February 25, 2018
The biggest knock on Shepherd is obviously the level of competition he faced. The Bucs have had mixed results with small school players over the last couple of decades. Tampa Bay selected East Tennessee State cornerback Donnie Abraham in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft, and signed receiver and return specialist Karl Williams and guard Jorge Diaz from Texas A&M-Kingsville as undrafted free agents in 1997. All three contributed to the Bucs making a playoff run during the Tony Dungy years.
The Bucs were unlucky with a couple of small school picks in the Jon Gruden era with wide receiver Larry Brackins, a fifth-round pick from Pearl River Community College, and defensive tackle Greg Peterson, a fifth-round pick from North Carolina Central in 2006. Those two players couldn’t transition to the NFL and never amounted to anything.
Tampa Bay has fared better recently with small school selections like Hobart offensive lineman Ali Marpet in the second round in 2015, and defensive end Noah Spence from Eastern Kentucky in the second round and cornerback Ryan Smith from North Carolina Central in the fourth round in 2016.
Shepherd, a native of Ontario, Canada, will take one of the most unconventional paths to the NFL and has a story that is steeped in perseverance. He attended Simon Fraser University as an undersized linebacker in 2012, but was told to gain weight and move to the defensive line. I spoke with Shepherd at the Senior Bowl back in January.
“I was playing linebacker originally at 205, and my coaches sat down with me and said if you want to play at the next level you’re going to have to move defensive line,” Shepherd said. “They didn’t feel I was going to be able to compete athletically. That was the transition. I moved to defensive end and it was a world of hurt for me. It really helped build my character. I had to put on weight because there was no way I was going to do this for four years without more weight. The following year I started at defensive tackle at 250 pounds. I used that season’s highlight tape to get me to Fort Hays State.”
But Shepherd wouldn’t go straight from Simon Frasier in British Columbia to Fort Hays State in the small town of Hays, Kansas without a few detours.
After the 2012 season, Shepherd faced some financial hardships and wasn’t able to get on scholarship at that time. He withdrew from the program and stayed in British Columbia where he worked at a plant nursery and later worked in electrical construction.
In 2014, Shepherd made his way back to Ontario and moved back in with his family and got a job at a printing factory where he made beer cartons during 12-hour shifts from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. or from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., mixing in workouts either before or after his shifts. Shepherd befriended Paul Watkins, who helped train him out of Toronto. Watkins told Shepherd that he could get drafted into the NFL if he worked out hard and got back into college football.
“I appreciated his confidence in me because he was telling me I was going to be an NFL Draft pick when not only was I not with a team, I wasn’t on scholarship and didn’t have money to get into a school. No one was looking at me. I wasn’t enrolled anywhere. Yet he told me I was going to be a draft pick. That was really surreal.”
What also was surreal was a chance meeting with former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson, a Canadian, who played for Minnesota, Seattle and Detroit in his 11-year career before joining NFL Network as a host of Good Morning Football and CBS’ NFL Today.
“I was working in a night club as a bouncer in British Columbia after I had left the team and I was down on my luck,” Shepherd said. “I was working in Pierre’s Champagne Lounge in downtown Vancouver. My boss was a friend of Nate Burleson, and my job that night was to chaperone Nate and his friends around and make sure they got back to their hotel at the end of the night. Nate asked me if I played football and told me I was going to make it to the league one day. Again, that meant a lot to me because little did he know that I wasn’t with a team then. He told me to keep grinding and keep working and that I would make it one day.”
Those words helped fuel Shepherd’s return to the gridiron. After a two-year hiatus, Shepherd took steps to get back to playing college football with the hopes of making it to the NFL.
“I took junior college classes at Northeast Texas Community College online to make it easier to transfer,” Shepherd said. “I was saving up money and I was up to 315 pounds at that time and there were some junior colleges I was looking at in the Midwest because I thought I would have to get re-scouted. One of them reached out to Al McCray at Fort Hays State and said that I didn’t need to go to a junior college.”
Fort Hays State had three senior offensive linemen, so there wasn’t room for Shepherd to be put on scholarship and he had to walk on. In 2015 he played spring football and was finally put on scholarship and played for the first time since 2012 in the fall.
In 2015, Shepherd was a third-team All-American as he finished his first college season in three years with 69 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks and two blocked kicks. As a junior, Shepherd posted 61 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles. Facing constant double teams, Shepherd recorded only 38 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, but was a second-team All-American and the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year award. He also played some fullback on offense.
Have to make sure everyone sees this clip. Nathan Shepherd just committed homicide during a collegiate football game. All 32 Special Teams Coordinators in the NFL are going to want to give a double take on this guy. pic.twitter.com/iiWIxI7kHL
— Cagen Cantrell (@CeeingTheDraft) January 25, 2018
Those stats were found on NFL.com on his draft profile, which also lists David Onyemata as his NFL comparable. Onyemata, who made it to the NFL via the East-West Shrine Game two years ago, was a fourth-round pick by New Orleans in 2016.
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Onyemata is similarly built, but doesn’t have the strength, movement and penetration ability that Shepherd does. Shepherd is a raw, developmental player that needs good coaching and some time to improve before being pressed into regular duty. It certainly wouldn’t hurt the Bucs to use an early pick on a defensive tackle who is more NFL-ready, and then come back in the middle rounds and draft Shepherd.
McDonald just turned 31 in January, and McCoy turned 30 last Sunday. Drafting and developing a future starter like Shepherd in perhaps the third or fourth round and having him learn under two accomplished pros like McDonald and McCoy and new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner will only accelerate his learning curve. Right now, Shepherd operates like a bull in a china shop and needs to understand the nuances of the game as well as refine his techniques.
But make no mistake. He’s definitely a bull. Shepherd needs to work on his pad level, but he showed on film and at the Senior Bowl that he has the power to penetrate and the rare lateral quickness to easily turn and pursue the quarterback or the running back – and that’s a good start.